You may or may not have seen this, but Dennis Kucinich was destroyed in a primary Tuesday in Ohio. Don’t worry, this is not a political column — it’s actually about the designated hitter. But it begins with Kucinich, who was the mayor of Cleveland when I was growing up there. Kucinich is universally seen as a character — as in “a person marked by notable or conspicuous traits.” Love him, despise him, anyplace in between (as if there is anyplace in between for Kucinich) you would probably admit that he’s one of a kind. Now, he’s out. And The Washington Post sees a trend.
“The one thing that’s being tamped down here is we’re losing characters,” Rep. Stephen C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) told the Post. “The place needs character and characters.”
You may or may not agree with the idea that Congress needs characters, but again the point here is not Kucinich or Congress or politics at all. It’s the designated hitter.
Our own Tom Verducci wrote a strong and interesting story about how trends point to the day, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, when the pitcher will no longer hit in baseball. He doesn’t say this WILL happen, only that everything — interleague play, an odd number of teams in each league and the scheduling it provides, the power of the Players Union and so on — points in a direction where (perhaps over the next 10 years) the National League will adopt the DH.
I have thought a lot about the DH over the years. I grew up with it. I grew up in Kucinich’s Cleveland, an American League city in default. I was 6 years old when the designated hitter was adopted. I really do not have any recollection of American League pitchers hitting. I know I was at some games where pitchers hit, but those individual memories do not stay with me … probably because the Indians had such colorful DH’s in those early years: Oscar Gamble with his huge Afro and enormous swing; Frank Robinson at end of one of baseball’s most brilliant careers; Rico Carty who it was said wouldn’t slide because he carried his wallet in his back pocket.*
*I loved Rico Carty. Loved everything about him. He almost never swung at the first pitch. He was the first hitter I remember who spun his bat round and round before the pitcher was ready, almost like nunchucks. And the guy could flat hit — he had led the league with a .366 average in Atlanta in 1970, and as a seemingly-ancient relic in Cleveland he still hit .303/.372/.455 in his three-plus years.
So for me, growing up, the DH wasn’t a gimmick or an abomination the way it might have been for people who had been baseball fans for years and years. No, it was part of the game (and a wonderful part). I imagine it is this way for people who can’t remember the NBA before the three-point line or college basketball before the shot clock or the NFL before the illegal contact rule. Rule changes, in time, simply become rules.
It really wasn’t until I got quite a bit older that I fully understood how much antipathy some people had for the DH and how National League fans were pretty certain that their league was the only one playing “pure” baseball. Funny: As a kid I had always thought National League baseball was kind of boring. I mean, you give me a choice to watch Rico Carty wind his bat and glare down a pitcher or watch Buzz Capra bunt … that was no contest for me.
But then I found myself watching a lot of National League baseball — Braves and Cubs on the two superstations, my best friend was a Mets fans, so these were really my only options as a North Carolina kid in the 1980s — and I came to appreciate the wonder of the NL. It wasn’t so much (as people constantly pointed out) that there was more STRATEGY in National League baseball. I have never thought that was exactly right — there are a lot of automatic choices in the NL.
Instead, I thought, there was more RHYTHM in the NL. In the American League — especially after we started getting some middle-infielders who could hit — the innings started to blend together. Sure, you always kept an eye out for the stars, but the truth is that just about everybody could hit at least reasonably, and so every inning was a potential scoring inning, and in that way the innings and place in the lineup didn’t matter so much.
In the National League, though, that pitcher’s spot was always there as a marker. If the pitcher was due up, you knew it would likely take some unusual circumstances to score — a two-out rally, an unlikely single by the pitcher, an error or something. As a fan, I found myself subconsciously separating the innings, thinking about pinch hitters and double switches, doing the math — sort of the way I do when watching a golf tournament and looking to see how many par-5s are left on the golf course or in football when calculating a comeback.*
*OK, if they score here and get the onside kick and score again and get the onside kick …
So, I liked that a lot. Anything that gets your mind buzzing in sports is good. My first newspaper jobs took me to many Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds games, and I really came to love National League baseball and appreciate the pitcher hitting. I liked the rhythm, I liked the simplicity of nine against nine, and there really isn’t anything else in baseball quite like the little jolt of a pitcher getting a hit. Everyone in the ballpark shifts just a little, there’s a bit of embarrassment, a few smiles, it’s a nice little moment. I very much liked the game without the DH.
Then, I moved to Kansas City, back to the American League, and fell in love with the DH all over again. The Royals’ DH for most of those years was a wonderful guy named Mike Sweeney who kept his legs so far apart in the batters box you wondered if he was trying to do a split, and he would wave twirl his bat ever so slightly behind his head and — I remember this detail so clearly — he would blink like 5 or 6 times just before the pitcher threw, as if he was trying to get an eyelash out or something. Sweeney had once been a catcher, and he had tried valiantly to play first base and sometimes played the position to a draw — one of my all-time favorite quotes was a coach saying, “Mike Sweeney would rather face Nolan Ryan on Christmas Day in a phone booth in the dark than field a ground ball” — but he really WAS a designated hitter at heart, and for four or five years, from 1999 to 2002 or 2003, he was one of the best hitters in the world.
Well, there were a lot of wonderful hitters who at some point didn’t or couldn’t play a position — Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, the aging Chili Davis and Darryl Strawberry and Paul Molitor and Harold Baines — and the games were so much more alive because of them. And so, I liked the DH again.
Finally — and it really crystallized for me reading Tom Verducci’s story — I realized something: I don’t really like or dislike the DH. What I really like is that one league has the DH while the other league does not. See, the older I get the more I see that one of the things I love most about sports is the variety of it, the diversity of it, the CHARACTERS, to get back to the Dennis Kucinich opening. Men’s tennis is at its best in many years because, for the first time in a long time, the top three or four players all have wildly different styles. The Tim Tebow story was fun on so many levels, but one of those levels was that he was just SO DIFFERENT in how he played — I’d say we are entering a great time with quarterback because Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning and Drew Brees and Michael Vick and Cam Newton and Tebow and others are not really alike at all.
What really stands out for me from when I was young was the way Joe Morgan flapped his left arm before at-bats, the way Jamaal Wilkes shot basketballs from behind his head, the way Al Hrabosky stomped around behind the mound, the way Billy Kilmer’s passes fluttered, Greg Pruitt’s tearaway jerseys, Lester Hayes covered in stick-um, Fidrych smoothing out the mound and talking to the baseball (or himself), Gretzky perched behind the goal, Billy Smith seemingly trying to hit players with his stick as they skated by, Reggie Jackson swinging so hard he would fall to one knee, Luis Tiant’s windup, Fernando Valenzuela’s windup, John McEnroe’s serve, Mike Singletary’s eyes, on and on and on. In other words, what I remember is the stuff that was really DIFFERENT. Yes: Different is good in sports.
The AL and NL have been eliminating their differences for years. They started to play each other in interleague play. They started using the same umpires. Players started going more freely from one league to another. Next year, inter league play will go on all year, and so will become even less special. I’m not saying these are good or bad trends, they just are trends. And so the leagues have mostly lost their identities, baseball in many ways has merged into one 30-team league.
BUT, there’s the DH. And as long as there’s the DH in the AL and not in the NL, the two leagues are not alike. As long as the DH separates the two leagues there will be arguments, drama, complaints, bragging, strategy … and these are some of the things that give baseball life and flavor.
I’m not saying that baseball should have introduced the designated hitter in the first place. Baseball people in general have a tendency to come up with short-sighted and brazen solutions to problems that may or may not exist — and the DH was probably one of those half-developed ideas. But the fact is they did put the DH in almost 40 years ago, and for millions of fans who lean American League, it’s the only game we ever knew, and we get to see and enjoy men like Travis Hafner, who may not know on which hand to wear a glove but who can really swat. And the fact is that for millions of others who lean National League, it’s a point of pride that the league still has its pitchers bunt runners over and hit .163 when they are allowed to swing away.
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to lose that. It’s one thing to have a Congress without characters like Dennis Kucinich around to give the place atmosphere. It’s quite another to have baseball without the DH to argue about.